Climate change is intensifying the hydrologic cycle and is expected to increase the frequency of extreme wet and dry years. Beyond precipitation amount, extreme wet and dry years may differ in other ways, such as the number of precipitation events, event size, and the time between events. We assessed 1614 long-term (100 year) precipitation records from around the world to identify key attributes of precipitation regimes, besides amount, that distinguish statistically extreme wet from extreme dry years. In general, in regions where mean annual precipitation (MAP) exceeded 1000 mm, precipitation amounts in extreme wet and dry years differed from average years by ~40% and 30%, respectively. The magnitude of these deviations increased to >60% for dry years and to >150% for wet years in arid regions (MAP<500 mm). Extreme wet years were primarily distinguished from average and extreme dry years by the presence of multiple extreme (large) daily precipitation events (events >99th percentile of all events); these occurred twice as often in extreme wet years compared to average years. In contrast, these large precipitation events were rare in extreme dry years. Less important for distinguishing extreme wet from dry years were mean event size and frequency, or the number of dry days between events. However, extreme dry years were distinguished from average years by an increase in the number of dry days between events. These precipitation regime attributes consistently differed between extreme wet and dry years across 12 major terrestrial ecoregions from around the world, from deserts to the tropics. Thus, we recommend that climate change experiments and model simulations incorporate these differences in key precipitation regime attributes, as well as amount into treatments. This will allow experiments to more realistically simulate extreme precipitation years and more accurately assess the ecological consequences.